Archive for October, 2010

Taco Bueno debuts low-calorie menu

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Taco Bueno Restaurants, the 190-unit regional Mexican chain, is targeting nutrition-conscious diners with a nine-item “Bueno Choice Menu” containing items ranging from 150 to 450 calories each.

The Dallas-based company said the new offerings include a 280-calorie bowl of Fresco Chicken Soup with seven vegetables for $3.99; a 440-calorie vegetarian black bean burrito for $1.89; and a 160-calorie Vegetarian Tostella for $1.69.

Citing National Restaurant Association surveys indicating 73 percent of U.S. adults say they now try to eat healthier at restaurants more than they did two years ago, John Miller, chief executive for Taco Bueno said, “Healthy dining is top of mind for consumers.”

The new menu, he added, “was created to meet the demands of these health-conscience consumers.”

The menu also includes a chicken fajita taco for $1.89, and a steak fajita taco for $1.89, which range between 190 and 210 calories; and soft or crispy chicken, $1.69, and beef tacos, 99 cents, between 150 and 200 calories. All but the Fresco Chicken Soup are permanent menu additions.

Taco Bueno also added the Taco Bueno Choice Kids Meal, which includes apple slices instead of cinnamon chips and a fruit smoothie to replace soda.

Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group’s foodservice division, said: “There’s definitely this movement, looking for healthy-light options.

“Again when we are talking healthy-light, consumers describe it as fresh ingredients, food that they can see prepared before them,” she said. “They believe that to be fresh when they see it prepared.”

Taco Bueno has units in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

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Diners love local and hate texting

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

New Orleans diners tip the best, Hawaiians the worst, diners think that texting at the table is rude and that food should be locally sourced, organic or sustainably raised.

Those were among the findings of Zagat’s survey of 153,000 diners as it compiled its 2011 America’s Top Restaurants guide, which was released Wednesday.

Sixty-eight percent of participants in the survey said they thought it was important for the food they eat to be locally sourced, organic or sustainably raised, and 60 percent said they would even pay more for such food. Nearly a third, 31 percent, said they sought out restaurants specializing in such “green” cuisine.

Most diners — 85 percent — said it was fine to take pictures of food and each other at restaurants, but 63 percent said texting, tweeting and talking on cell phones was rude and inappropriate.

Diners are eating out a little less than before the recession — 3.1 times per week, compared with 3.3 percent. Thirty-nine percent said they are paying more attention to price, 33 percent said they’re eating in less expensive places, 17 percent said they were cutting back on alcohol, and 21 percent said they were ordering fewer appetizers and desserts.

Still, the national average price of a meal rose 2.2 percent in the past year to $35.37. New Orleans, where the average tip is 19.7 percent, has the lowest average meal cost among Zagat survey participants — of $28.36.

Right behind New Orleans diners in tipping are Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Ohio, where tippers leave an average gratuity of 19.6 percent

On the low end, Hawaiians tip 18.4 percent on average, and diners in Sacramento and San Francisco tip an average of 18.6 percent.

Las Vegas is the most expensive city to eat in, with an average meal price of $44.44.

As is usual in the Zagat survey, diners’ biggest complaint was poor service, although in the most recent survey just 67 percent said service was the most irritating thing about eating in restaurants, down from 72 percent in 2006. Picking up the slack in top complaints are noise and crowds, which are the pet peeves of 14 percent of diners, up from 12 percent in 2006. Complaints about price and food quality also rose from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Full results of the survey can be downloaded here:

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Driving business with interactive gaming

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Buffalo Wild Wings is enhancing the guest experience and encouraging repeat patronage through the use of an interactive, in-restaurant gaming system, the chain said, and other operators are finding the technology key to building higher checks.

The 700-unit Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings is one of many restaurateurs to provide out-of-home entertainment options, such as interactive gaming or special TV programming. That strategy is gaining some support from research that suggests that entertainment-laced “destination dining” may win a larger share of the shrinking consumer spending for out-of-home entertainment not associated with vacations or travel.

Some independent operations, including John Howie’s Sport Restaurant & Bar in Seattle, are using new entertainment technologies, such as 3D TV, in already entertainment heavy settings to catch new guests or incite second looks from regulars.

This fall Buffalo Wild Wings is offering guests the chance to play the Pick ‘Em Challenge, which pits their skill at picking professional football game winners against the picks of celebrity sports experts, including ESPN talent and pigskin hall of famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice. The highest weekly scorer in the game — provided by vendor NTN Buzztime Inc. — at each restaurant receives a $25 gift card. The highest scoring player across the entire chain each week will win a trip to play in a flag football game in February coached by celebrities at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

“Buffalo Wild Wings is proud to be the destination location for football fans each season and Buzztime has been integral in helping us to encourage repeat patronage in our restaurants this year with the Pick ‘Em Challenge,” said Kathy Benning, Buffalo Wild Wings executive vice president of global marketing and brand development.

Benning did not disclose the amount of repeat patronage generated by the game or whether or not it favorably impacts average checks. The chain did estimate that more than 100,000 of the chain’s guests, or an average of 143 per restaurant, will play Pick ‘Em Challenge this football season.

The game vendor’s website quote other restaurant operators as indicating that the company’s interactive games can boost average checks by as much as 50 percent, compared with the spend of non-players.

Seattle-based John Howie’s Sport Restaurant & Bar this summer looked to take advantage of FIFA World Cup soccer fever by teaming with cable provider Comcast to haul in a state-of-the-art big-screen 3D TV and 10 pairs of 3D glasses for the series finals.

Comcast officials involved in the promotion said interest in the new technology was high, and that guests in the restaurant shared the 3D glasses while taking advantage of Howie’s tap beer special pricing of $3 for domestic pours and $4 for micro brews.

Combining a leisure activity, such as gaming, with the service of meals and beverages is good tactic, according to officials of Kansas City. Mo.-based White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group.

Principal Randy White indicated in a white paper that while overall household spending for out-of-home entertainment increased 19 percent between 2004 and 2009. The jump was driven by increased expenditures for such activities on vacations, while spending for such diversions near the home actually decreased by 13 percent.

White’s group identified destination dining as one of three opportunities going forward to grow non-vacation, out-of-home entertainment spending.

White pointed out that the average American eats out more than 200 times a year, or far more frequently than they visit entertainment venues, such as the cinema, which he said research shows Americans, on average, visited just 4.3 times in 2009.

“Destination dining drives frequency. That is why many movie theatre chains are ramping up their food and beverage offerings with bars, restaurants and even full meals while watching the movie,” White wrote. “Food adds another competitive advantage, as no virtual world or imaginative experience can incorporate the real world sensory experience of eating and drinking.”

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Togo’s debuts new branding effort

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Ready for its first growth push since its sale from former owner Dunkin’ Brands, the Togo’s sandwich chain has debuted a new branding plan that aims to highlight its history as a “West Coast original.”

Togo’s Eateries Inc. opened a new prototype design in June in Valencia, Calif., followed by two more units with the new look in Sparks, Nev., and Palm Desert, Calif. Three more are scheduled to open before the end of the year.

The rest of the units within the 242-unit mostly franchised chain will also undergo a remodel to incorporate the new look, which includes refreshed menu boards, uniforms, new fresh bread displays and a new logo and signage, said Renae Scott, Togo’s Eateries vice president of branding and marketing.

The efforts aim to drive franchise growth, which is gaining steam after a few slow years while the chain was in transition, said Tony Gioia, Togo’s Eateries chairman and chief executive. The company now has the goal of opening 50 units over the next two years, focusing on the West Coast.

Togo’s was founded in 1971 in San Jose and is known for its big, meaty, made-to-order sandwiches with quality ingredients.

Growing to about 200 units, the chain was acquired in 1997 by Allied Domecq, then-parent to Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands. The goal at the time was to co-brand the sandwich concept with Dunkin’ Brands’ Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins to extend franchisee daypart potential.

With Dunkin’ Brands, Togo’s grew to more than 400 units in the early 2000s, said Gioia, who is a former president of Baskin-Robbins.

In 2007, Togo’s was divested by Dunkin’ Brands, and was acquired by Gioia in partnership with private-equity firm Mainsail Partners of San Francisco. At the time, Togo’s included about 260 units.

Over the past three years, Gioia has moved away from co-branding, focused on building the chain’s management team and tinkered with the format to revive the “essence of this 40-year-old brand,” he said.

The refresh, for example, includes a return to one-to-one service style, in which one employee works with the customer to create the sandwich, rather than the sandwich moving down an “assembly line” as it is made, said Gioia.

Rather than having individual prices by size, menu boards now show pricing for regular-sized sandwiches and guests can “go large” for a standard $1.50 more.

Togo’s introduced smaller “Mini Classic” sandwiches last fall, which are made on round buns for $2.50 and have become a permanent menu option, Scott said.

And, for the seemingly magic price point of $5, Togo’s is offering a daily special sandwich, chips and a drink, rather than the “long, skinny breadwich” offered by other sandwich chains for that price, said Scott.

Gioia said sales in 2009 were “tough” systemwide, but so far this year both same-store sales and traffic levels are up and climbing, though he declined to give specifics.

He said Togo’s average annual sales per unit are around $600,000, with lunch as the primary daypart. The average check is about $8.25.

Scott said build-out costs for the new prototype range between $250,000 and $300,000 for units between 1,200- and 1,400 square feet.

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Atlanta Restaurants Seeing Better Days

Monday, October 11th, 2010

After more than two years of sluggish sales brought on by the recession, restaurateurs in Atlanta say business is beginning to improve and that they’re optimistic about a rebound in 2011.

Operators in the city pointed to an increase in private parties and convention business, which they expect to continue as the holiday season nears. And while diners remain value-conscious, some restaurateurs reported that increased drink and appetizer orders are giving check averages a boost.

“The economy, I think, is starting to come back,” said Kevin Rathbun, chef and co-owner of the upscale Rathbun’s, Krog Bar and Kevin Rathbun Steak restaurants in midtown Atlanta. “I’m starting to see an upward trend as opposed to downward. 2009 was a rough year, but we’re starting to move in the right direction.”

The return of private parties and conventions

Rathbun said he is seeing more customers frequenting his restaurants in Atlanta for special occasions as well as business meals.

“We’re seeing some private parties come back, and a lot of pharmaceutical companies are coming back into play; that’s helped us,” he said. “Also, conventions are starting to play a big part. A lot of them canceled in 2009, but they’re starting to [return now] It’s looking even better for 2011.”

Robby Kukler, a partner at Atlanta’s Fifth Group Restaurants, which operates such upscale establishments as South City Kitchen, La Tavola and Ecco, said he expect 2010 to end on a strong note, thanks to the upcoming holiday season.

“For us, my gut feeling is that holiday dining and group dining is going to be pretty good,” Kukler said. “This year, I think, there is some pent-up demand for those corporations who maybe haven’t done anything for the last two years and to go a third year might be a long time.”

However, he noted that company holiday parties likely will not be as lavish as the affairs held before the recession hit.

“Corporate clients will want more for their money so events won’t be as extravagant as they had [been] in the past,” Kukler said. “There might be a large number of attendees, but maybe they won’t be as overdone in terms of ingredients or décor or the amount of beverage served.”

Alcohol and appetizer sales up

Kukler said his restaurants are starting to experience an uptick in check averages as customers order more drinks and appetizers.

“We have seen that coming back to being more like it was prior to the recession,” he said. “But people are still looking for value and are really thinking about what they’re ordering. They’re making sure its something they will enjoy.”

Kukler noted that wine sales are back up at some restaurants, and that a growing interest in mixology is driving cocktails orders.

“Really, there has been an ongoing increase in spirits and cocktails that is due to the continued growth in mixology and [the creation of] interesting cocktails,” he said. “We’ve seen that happen at all of our concepts where we previously had seen dips during the past 12 to 18 months.”

Value remains key

More casual restaurants in Atlanta also are seeing improving sales trends as residents continue to seek value.

At J. Christopher’s, a 22-unit family-dining chain that specializes in breakfast and lunch, sales are up 1 percent over last year, said Dick Holbrook, the company’s president and chief executive.

“I think people see us, with our average per-person check of about $10, as still affordable,” Holbrook said. “We don’t do liquor, appetizers or dessert; we’re basically a beverage and an entrée so they know what they’re going to spend.”

Reginald Washington, a partner in Lush Life Group, which owns such concepts as Rolling Bones Premium Pit BBQ, said focusing on value is key to succeeding in a tough operating environment.

“People really are conscious of how much money they are spending,” Washington said, “and they’re really thinking about where and how they’re going to spend it.”

Value is more than just price, said Bob Campbell, co-founder and chief executive of Tappan Street Restaurant Group, parent company of the 27-unit Taco Mac casual-dining chain. Customers expect to get their money’s worth, regardless of how much they spend, he said.

“If they feel they’ve gotten bang for their buck, they’ll be happy at any price level,” Campbell said.

Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, agreed saying, “Restaurateurs that operate consistently and provide consistent value to their customers are doing and will continue to do well. This restaurant industry is slowly but surely coming back.”

Health care costs looming

While many Atlanta operators are optimistic about the rest of 2010 and next year, they fear implementation of the health care reform bill will erode their profits with increased labor costs.

MORE: Anxiety grows over health care reform

Holbrook of J. Christopher’s said he expects costs to increase for both businesses and consumers as a result.

“I think the overall thing that’s misunderstood by Congress and most Americans is that if you impose health insurance on us as restaurateurs, as business people, we are going to turn around and pass it along to you as a guest in the price of our food,” he said. “There’s this misconception that it’s going to be free. Well, there’s nothing for free and … we’re going to see the cost of everything we buy and consume go up. We need to be realistic about that because our margins have been pinched.”

Holbrook noted that many in the restaurant industry think health insurance should be provided to employees, but in a more cost-effective way.

“I think we come across sometimes like we do on minimum wage — as not caring, but we are a caring group,” Holbrook said. “We’re in the people business so finding the right ways to provide our employees with insurance certainly would be on our agenda but we have to do that in a way that’s realistic from a financial standpoint.”

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Church’s and Dunkin’ Roll Our New Menu Items

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Church’s Chicken and Dunkin’ Donuts introduced new additions to their menu on Monday aimed at their on-the-go customers.

The 1,700-unit Church’s Chicken debuted a Crispy Chicken Taco, made with seasoned chicken, shredded lettuce and Cheddar cheese in a crispy taco shell. The new item — which is priced at 99 cents each or $3.99 for a combo meal with two tacos, fries and a drink — is targeted to consumers looking for portable and value-oriented options, Church’s said.

“Our new Crispy Chicken Taco was developed to be more relevant and meet the needs of younger and more mobile consumers,” said Tony Lavely, Church’s chief marketing officer. “This portable product is the first on our new menu board, but it certainly wont be the last of its kind.”

Also on Monday, Dunkin’ Donuts said it had reintroduced a Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich as part of its fall menu. The $2.99 sandwich consists of a scrambled egg, maple-flavored sausage patty and melted white Cheddar cheese on a croissant.

The Canton, Mass.-based chain also debuted a Caramel Apple Latte featuring a combination of red and green apple flavors mixed with a hint of caramel. The new drink is available in select markets, and a 10-ounce size sells for $1.99.

“Our new and returning fall menu items capture the flavor of the season in a fresh, affordable and delicious way,” said Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef for parent company Dunkin’ Brands Inc. “From our popular Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich to the new Caramel Apple Latte, our guests can celebrate fall to the fullest and keep themselves running any of time of day all throughout October.”

Also back for fall at Dunkin’ Donuts are Fall Munchkins, which are glazed old-fashioned cake doughnut holes dipped in autumn nonpareils that are priced at $4.79 for a 25-count box or $6.99 for 50, as well as a series of pumpkin-flavored snacks and beverages, including pumpkin coffee drinks and pumpkin muffins and doughnuts.

The more than 9,000-unit chain plans to roll out Halloween treats later this month, such as its “Boston Scream” Donut and Trick-or-Treat bag of 50 Munchkin doughnut holes. The Trick-or-Treat Munchkins will be offered starting Oct. 18 and the “Boston Scream,” a variation of Dunkin’s Boston Kreme doughnut, will be available Oct. 25-31 for 89 cents.

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Gordon Biersch to Open Fast-Casual Location

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group will become the latest casual-dining operator to enter the fast-casual sector when it opens a downscale outpost of its 29-unit Gordon Biersch dinnerhouse chain near Sacramento, Calif., later this year.

Called Gordon Biersch Tavern, the 60-seat, 1,400-square-foot restaurant will be located at the Westfield Galleria in Roseville, Calif., and will feature a limited menu of signature dishes along with several handcrafted beers.

The tavern concept, which features an $11 check average, has been in the works for about two years, spokeswoman Kelly Wilson said, adding that current plans call for the opening of two to three more units in 2011 and four to five stores in 2012. All of the stores will be company owned.

“We are delighted to introduce the Gordon Biersch Tavern format at the Westfield Galleria in Roseville,” said Allen Corey, president and chief executive of the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based restaurant company. “We believe this is a natural extension of our brand.”

He said the restaurant “will continue with the same high-quality, made-from-scratch menu and same level of service and hospitality in this concept.”

The menu will include American-style Kobe sliders, mahi mahi fish tacos, and Gordon Biersch’s signature garlic fries. The restaurant will offer handcrafted beers, wines by the glass and such nonalcoholic options as freshly squeezed lemonade and housemade root beer.

The fast-casual segment has been growing increasingly attractive to full-service operators. Brands like Ruby Tuesday, Mimi’s Café, La Madeleine, Uno Chicago Grill, and Chili’s have said they are staking out positions in the fast-growing sector.

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